Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist; pp. 324-325
We’ve arrived at the tricky part of Rayford Steele’s sermon on the Seven Seals of Revelation. The first four are easy for any End-Times preacher because: A) Most people are at least broadly familiar with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; and B) Conquest, War, Famine and Death all sound pretty bad. Rayford has the added advantage here of preaching this sermon during the Great Tribulation — after the four riders have already galloped forth to pour out their miseries on the world. So all through the first part of Rayford’s sermon everyone could nod along agreeably, thinking, “Yes, of course, War, Famine and Death — we’re quite familiar with them.”
But the last three seals present a challenge here. No. 6 is straightforward enough — a big ol’ earthquake — but Nos. 5 and 7 are a bit more cryptic. The fifth seal is a host of martyrs crying for vengeance and the seventh seal is silence in heaven “for about half an hour.”* Those don’t fit quite as neatly into a “Bible-prophecy scholar’s” linear chronology of the End of the World.
This is a problem for everyone trying to read these as a predicted sequence of events in “the Earth’s final days.” The basic approach seems simple enough: Seven Seals, then Seven Trumpets, then Seven Vials gives us a list of 21 Very Bad Things foretold and predestined to occur before the final curtain. But when these End-Times preachers actually try to make that list, they find that many of the seals, trumpets and vials don’t want to cooperate. First there’s the problem of repetition, which makes it seem like John was running out of ideas — Another big earthquake? And didn’t all the water get poisoned, like, at least twice already? And then there are things like the fifth seal, during which nothing actually happens down on earth:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.
Notice that this fifth seal doesn’t involve a bunch of martyrs getting martyred. They had already “been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given” before the fifth seal was ever opened. All that happens here in Seal No. 5 is that these martyrs demand some payback, after which they’re given white robes and told to be patient.
I’m not sure how to make that fit as part of a sequence of “judgments” or as outpourings of divine wrath. It’s just an oddly dissonant note: Conquest, War, Famine, Death, white robes and chill.
But let’s allow Rayford to explain the meaning of this passage for us. He reads the verses quoted above, and then:
“In other words,” Rayford continued, “many of those who have died in this world war, and are yet to die until a quarter of the world’s population is gone, are considered Tribulation martyrs. I put Bruce in this category. While he may not have died specifically for preaching the gospel or while preaching the gospel, clearly it was his life’s work, and it resulted in his death. I envision Bruce under the altar with the souls of those slain for the word of God and for the testimony they held. He will be given a white robe and told to rest a while longer until even more martyrs are added to the total.”
I don’t begrudge Bruce his free white robe, but I’m struggling to understand what exactly qualifies him as a martyr. Even if “preaching the gospel” was “his life’s work,” he still died of natural causes. Rayford himself just finished emphasizing that Bruce died from disease and not from the bombing of the hospital that followed shortly thereafter.
But even if Bruce had been killed by the Antichrist’s airstrike — like the hundreds of apparent non-martyrs slain in that hospital — he wouldn’t have died “for the word of God and for the testimony he had given,” but only because he, like those others, had been in the path of an unprovoked, unexplained, indiscriminate attack.
What Rayford seems to be arguing, though, is that all Christian victims of the Antichrist’s war against his own Global Community are martyrs, while the millions of non-Christian victims of that war are just sinners reaping the divine wrath they richly deserve. He says that any Christian who dies from any of the “seal” judgments will be counted among the white-robed martyrs.
That argument looks even stranger when you realize that the source and cause of all these “seal” judgments is none other than God. This isn’t the kind of martyrdom that John describes in Revelation. Nor is it what we usually think of when we use that word, “martyr.” We think of martyrs as people who are killed because of their faith. Rayford is saying that martyrs are people who are killed by the object of their faith — killed by God.
Think of what this means for these first six seals. God sends forth conquest, war, famine and death, granting them authority to take the lives of one fourth of everyone on Earth. Then all the people God has just finished killing gather in Heaven and demand that God avenges their death. They get white robes and are told to be patient while God gets back to work with the killing, producing millions more “martyrs” by slaughtering even more Christians in a ginormous earthquake.
But if Rayford Steele doesn’t understand what martyrdom really means, he does seem to understand what any mention of it is expected to produce in the pulpit of a white evangelical church. His next words will be very familiar to anyone who’s ever spent time in such a place:
“I must ask you today, are you prepared? Are you willing? Would you give your life for the sake of the gospel?”
That bit. Evangelical preachers have been preaching this notion of abstract martyrdom for generations. If someone put a gun to your head and demanded that you renounce Jesus Christ, would you do it?** This question always expects — and receives — lots of “bold” responses, with everyone reaffirming that they would defiantly remain faithful until the violent end.
I don’t see much evidence that all of those sermons or the bold pledges they prompt have had much effect on the daily lives of the millions of Christians who have heard them. But those countless sermons have had the effect of suggesting to all those privileged, unperturbed Christians that somehow this gun-to-the-head demand to renounce their faith was a likely scenario.
“I must ask you today, are you prepared? Are you willing? Would you give your life for the sake of the gospel?”
Rayford paused to take a breath and was startled when someone cried out, “I will!”
Rayford didn’t know what to say. Suddenly, from another part of the sanctuary: “So will I!”
Three or four others said the same in unison.
This scene is moving and inspiring. We know this because Jerry Jenkins tells us so. And because he does so with exclamation points:
Rayford choked back tears. It had been a rhetorical question. He had not expected an answer. How moving! How inspiring!
I blame Jenkins for the tell-don’t-show awfulness here — “How moving! How inspiring!” The guy can never resist inserting stage directions for readers like that. But some of the blame here also likely belongs to his co-author, Tim LaHaye, because this reads like the gauzy fantasy sequence imagined by every preacher who’s ever resorted to these manipulative martyr sermons. This is what LaHaye always hopes and dreams will happen when he preaches about the coming day when secular humanist gay-marrying liberal Satanic baby-killers will hold guns to the heads of real, true Christians and demand they renounce their faith. “Are you willing to die?” he’ll ask, “Would you give your life for the sake of the gospel?” And then all over the sanctuary, his nameless congregants will leap to their feet to declare “I will!” before they all stand on their desks and address him as “O Captain, my captain!” weeping with gratitude.
How moving. How inspiring. Yet Rayford apparently worries it’s all a bit too moving and inspiring, so he quickly moves to defuse the situation before anyone gets any more inspired:
He felt led not to let others follow based on emotion alone. He continued, his voice thick, “Thank you, brothers and sisters. I fear we may all be called upon to express our willingness to die for the cause.”
Like I said, Rayford really doesn’t understand martyrdom. He thinks of it as being “called upon to express our willingness to die,” which you’ll notice is one very large step removed from being called upon to actually, in fact, die.
It’s not surprising that Rayford and the authors would redefine martyrdom in this way, since this is also how they redefine Christian life. For them, being a Christian doesn’t mean following Jesus, but expressing a willingness to do so. Expressing that willingness is what’s important — more important than actually doing anything. Otherwise that would be “works righteousness” (“How far from the mark!“)
“Praise God you are willing. Bruce’s notes indicate that he believed these judgments are chronological. If the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse lead to the white-robed tribulation martyrs under the altar in heaven, that could be happening even as we speak.”
And just like that, we can check off another box on our big Checklist of Tribulation Events. The first four seals of divine judgment — the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — arrived with surprisingly little effect on the plot of our story or the lives of our protagonists. (They now have to fly in and out of Milwaukee, but that’s about it.) And now the fifth seal turns out to be “happening even as we speak.”
The question is no longer whether or not our heroes will survive the various calamities of the Great Tribulation. The question now seems to be whether or not they will ever notice them.
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* Here’s what Revelation actually says about the seventh seal: “When He opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” Even if we treat that as an eerie silence, full of dread and foreboding, it still seems a bit anti-climactic compared to all the war and pestilence and moon becoming like blood and every mountain and island being moved out of its place that preceded it. That’s why End-Times preachers usually jazz it up by deciding that what this really means is that the seventh seal is the Seven Trumpets that follow it — like using your third wish to ask for three more wishes, I guess.
** This scenario was frightening but also exciting. It also inspired what we earlier discussed as “Martyr envy“:
I don’t know whether those speakers realized the secret envy we had when listening to those stories. The lives of those martyrs seemed so much more exciting and meaningful than our own did. Plus there was something weirdly appealing about a one-time, one-question, pass-fail test in place of the tedious day-after-day. In our imaginations, at least, the martyr’s egress sounded almost easier than the pilgrim’s progress (as somebody once said, the hardest thing in this world is to live in it.) We imagined that, like the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” we could’ve been good kids if it had been somebody there to shoot us every minute of our lives.